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Posts from the ‘Joy Jacobson’ Category

Write of Spring: The Examined Life Conference

These past few years, it’s become a vernal ritual: in early April, just as the buds on the flowering pear trees are about to pop here in New York City, I get on a plane and fly to Iowa, where spring “may continue taking its time” to arrive. It seems perverse, I know. What could lure me again to the great, flat, frozen Midwest after a winter like we’ve had? The Examined Life Conference: Writing, Humanities, and the Art of Medicine, an annual gathering of health care providers and writers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine—this year’s conference takes place April 10 – 12.

ExaminedLifeLogoAmong the featured presenters will be Andrew Solomon, whose most recent book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and many other prizes. (He’s also the author of a much-discussed New Yorker article, “The Reckoning,” based on his extensive interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, Adam Lanza.) Also on hand will be Louise Aronson, a Harvard-educated geriatrician who holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of a short story collection, A History of the Present Illness.

I’m especially excited this year because CHMP Poet-in-Residence Joy Jacobson and I will lead a two-day preconference writing workshop, Writers as Healers, Healers as Writers, on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 8 – 9. There’s still time to sign up.

We don’t follow the format of the traditional writing workshop, in which participants critique drafts of stories, poems, or essays with an eye to improving their literary value. Rather, the focus of our workshops is on the writing process as an act of discovery and healing. We base our approach on the expressive writing method pioneered by psychologist James W. Pennebaker and colleagues, who have demonstrated a wide range of physical and emotional health benefits associated with intensive writing about trauma and other emotionally charged events. We’ve also adapted the methods outlined in Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, itself an elaboration of Pennebaker’s expressive writing technique.

Also due in April is Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, coauthored by Pennebaker and John Evans. According to the Amazon blurb, “It explains why writing can often be more helpful than talking when dealing with trauma, and it prepares the reader for their writing experience. The book looks at the most serious issues and helps the reader process them. From the instructions: ‘Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.’”

Joy and I will post from the conference. Stay tuned. And enjoy the Rite of Spring!

–Jim Stubenrauch is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy
and teaches writing at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.

“All Searching Together”: Reflective Writing and Nursing Research in a Magnet Hospital

For many of us, writing doesn’t often come as easily as we’d wish. The dream is that our fingers will tap dance across the keyboard and the words will race across the computer screen, sentence after flowing sentence forming well-ordered paragraphs and well-structured arguments—and every once in a while, after lots of practice, that might actually happen. But that’s not most people’s experience most of the time. Many factors can contribute to the difficulty of writing; for students whose grades depend, in part, on the papers they write, or for professionals whose advancement depends on publication, worry about the judgment of others and the fear of not meeting the standard may become paralyzing. Because some of the barriers to effective writing are emotional, reflective and creative writing techniques can be helpful even in an academic or scientific setting.

I recently had the pleasure of joining with two colleagues to provide a two-day writing retreat for a group of nurses and physical therapists at NYU Langone Medical Center Hospital for Joint Diseases. HJD is a Magnet hospital, a designation the American Nurses Credentialing Center awards to institutions that demonstrate qualities of nursing practice and patient care outcomes that attract and retain highly qualified professional nurses. Magnet hospitals are centers of nursing research, and a condition of maintaining Magnet status is that staff nurses conduct such research and publish the results. Dr. Donna M. Nickitas, a faculty colleague at Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing and the executive officer of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program, had previously worked with groups of nurses at HJD to help them develop manuscripts for publication. For this two-day retreat, she invited CHMP poet-in-residence Joy Jacobson and me to collaborate on a program that, in addition to her own thorough overview of producing research articles, would use artistic means to help participants get into the flow of writing.

Photo caption: Participants in the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases Winter Writing Retreat (from left to right): Gael Donchance, BSN, RN, Edward Creasy, MSN, RN-BC, CNOR, Donna Nickitas, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, CNE, FAAN, Annie Lu, MS, RN, ANP-BC, ADM-BC, Eslene Jeanty-Mayers, BSN, RN, Jennifer Withall, RN, ANM, Patricia Lavin, MS, BSN, RN, Joy Jacobson, MFA, Ella Blot, MSN, BSN, RN, Andrew Wuthrich, MSN, RN, ONC, Binita Desai, DPT, BPT, Jim Stubenrauch, MFA. Participants not shown in photo: Kimberly Volpe, MS, RN, and Elizabeth Pagano, PT, DPT, GCS, CSCS.

Photo caption: Participants in the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases Winter Writing Retreat (from left to right): Gael Donchance, BSN, RN, Edward Creasy, MSN, RN-BC, CNOR, Donna Nickitas, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, CNE, FAAN, Annie Lu, MS, RN, ANP-BC, ADM-BC, Eslene Jeanty-Mayers, BSN, RN, Jennifer Withall, RN, ANM, Patricia Lavin, MS, BSN, RN, Joy Jacobson, MFA, Ella Blot, MSN, BSN, RN, Andrew Wuthrich, MSN, RN, ONC, Binita Desai, DPT, BPT, Jim Stubenrauch, MFA. Participants not shown in photo: Kimberly Volpe, MS, RN, and Elizabeth Pagano, PT, DPT, GCS, CSCS.

Joy and I engaged the group in creative activities that we often use in our writing classes and workshops, including readings and reflective writing prompts that stimulate the imagination and rekindle clinicians’ passion for their research topics. We asked the writers to read aloud from their own work and from published poems and essays, not only for their content but also to help the writers become more comfortable hearing their own voices and being heard by others. And each day, as a way to relieve stress, quell anxiety, and center the group’s awareness in the creative present, Joy led a guided meditation that I accompanied on harmonium, a small reed organ with a keyboard and hand-operated bellows. All of us focused our attention on our breathing, loosened our grasp on thoughts about work and worries about writing, and vocalized in tune with the harmonium’s drone. And then we wrote.

Jim with harmonium -- photo: Edward Creasy

Jim with harmonium — photo: Edward Creasy

On the second day of the retreat, we read a short excerpt from an essay called “Don’t Ever Forget Me” by Christopher Lance Coleman (the essay can be be found in an excellent anthology, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, edited by Lee Gutkind). Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Coleman was a nursing student at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when a lack of knowledge about how the disease was transmitted instilled fear in many health care providers. Coleman begins his essay with an account of being on duty one evening and hearing weak cries coming from behind a hospital door marked with a sign that said: “Patient Has AIDS. Do Not Enter.” Defying the sign—and the rules for nursing students, who were then forbidden to care for AIDS patients—Coleman entered and found a woman who had dropped her fork and was too weak to pick it up and feed herself. Coleman fed the woman and vowed to himself that no AIDS patient would ever again go hungry on his watch. He’s spent the past 30 years doing hospice work with HIV/AIDS patients and conducting research in HIV/AIDS prevention.

Coleman’s story had special meaning for one of the writing retreat participants, Patricia Lavin, MS, BSN, RN. Now the director of nursing quality and outcomes at HJD, Lavin worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village during the worst period of the AIDS crisis. In all, she spent more than a decade as an emergency room staff nurse and critical care nurse and also worked in nursing management. She writes: “St. Vincent’s was the epicenter of New York City’s AIDS epidemic. It housed the first and largest AIDS ward on the East Coast and is often referred to as the ‘ground zero’ of the AIDS epidemic. Thousands of people were treated for HIV/AIDS at St. Vincent’s and many died; many more passed through to visit sick partners, friends, and family members. Although there were other important AIDS wards and treatment centers in New York City, none took on the symbolic and cultural significance of St. Vincent’s.”

Here is Lavin’s response to Coleman’s essay, an account of a time when “we were all searching together”:

Marching with the Unknown

Staring into the faces of the emaciated and frightened men with fevers of unknown origin

Knowing that they wanted answers and no one had them

Fear etched into their faces, searching for any glimmer of hope from the figures in white who drifted in and out of their rooms and their lives

They were frightened

We were frightened

They stared with disbelief at the path of destruction this unknown illness brought

We, their caregivers, stared too at the ravages of the unknown disease

At the loss of all that they loved

At the unknown . . .

One patient taunted me—beckoning me to see what a nightmare he was trapped in

I was a new nurse and every day I came in and tried to be upbeat and happy

I focused on the positive, day after day, when I walked through the door to care for him

But he was dying

He was afraid

He was alone

No one knew why

No one could help

We were all lost, we were all searching together, and no one had answers in 1984

By 1988 I was working in Greenwich Village at the height of the epidemic

Now we had a name—AIDS

We knew that HIV was the cause

But it did not stop the ravaged bodies coming in through the Emergency Room doors

It did not stop the suffering, the pain and the fear

So much fear

So many questions still unanswered, how long could this go on for?

How many more would suffer?

Who else would die?

Your neighbor, your friend, your lover, your brother, your uncle, your father . . . ?

People praying,

People hoping,

People crying,

People suffering,

Agony and then courage, yes oh the courage and then action!

Marching in the streets in New York City and across the country

Demanding answers, demanding to be heard

Crowds of angry young men breaking down the doors in our Emergency Room lobby

Curtains and drapes being dragged off the windows,

Spray painted body forms painted on the sidewalk, painted in the lobby as reminders of their pain and of their dying bodies

When would it stop??

When would all the anguish turn into answers??

Death still came as the years turned into decades

It only marched slower now,

It took longer to come

But it still came . . .

–Jim Stubenrauch is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy
and teaches writing at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.

Stepping into the Clearing: An Interview with Transformative Language Arts Founder Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Last week I posted an interview with Seema Reza, a student of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College who uses the arts with veterans and active-duty service members. This week I have interviewed Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, the founder of the Goddard program and of the Transformative Language Arts Network. She leads community writing workshops in Lawrence, Kansas, and from 2009 to 2013 was the state poet laureate of Kansas. Caryn has written 16 books in various genres, including poetry, memoir, and fiction, and she and singer Kelly Hunt offer writing and singing workshops through Brave Voice. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for a breathtaking poem and photo from her upcoming poetry-and-photography collection with Stephen Locke.—Joy Jacobson, poet-in-residence, @joyjaco

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

How did you come to the term “transformative language arts” (TLA)?

In 1998 when I was teaching at Goddard I started to realize how much students needed to write about their own lives in order to do strong critical writing and creative writing. And I was leading writing workshops in the community, a group of low-income women at a local housing authority and workshops in the schools with teens. And it started to occur to me that we had music therapy and art therapy but no parallel with writing. At Goddard I realized it’s much broader than therapy and much broader than writing. It also includes spoken word and theater and collaborative or solo performance—all the things we might do with words artistically to have some impact on improving the world. Deciding what to call it was really difficult. I had a contest with no real prizes. Someone said “transformative practices” and someone said “language arts,” and while it’s a mouthful transformative language arts names it in an open and accurate way.

The program offers a master’s degree at Goddard.
It’s been a master’s program since the fall of 2000. We’ve had about 70 graduates. Most who’ve gone through it are making a living in TLA in some way—coaching, teaching in a variety of settings, leading arts-based community-building projects, and so on.

You said it involves language but is more than writing. Can you say more about that?
It really became clear how much in our culture and in academia especially we split everything up. People in the oral tradition are in the classics department. People interested in social change are in political science or social work. And creative writers are in creative writing departments. That seems to me to be a false set of divisions. We’re diminishing the power of our words by categorizing them in these ways. There are all kinds of things we can learn from one another, by having a more interdisciplinary approach.

Did you encounter any resistance at Goddard when trying to set it up as an interdisciplinary program?
I had the great advantage of founding TLA at an interdisciplinary college. Many colleges and universities are developing more interdisciplinary approaches. But Goddard is based on progressive education and the work of John Dewey, which says that you know best what you need to learn and how to do it. Looking at something from many angles is one of the best ways to get a fuller picture of it. In all of the Goddard programs students are required to look at what they’re studying through different lenses. TLA students have a core reading list and those areas include the oral tradition, creative writing, traditions of social change, psychology as it relates to facilitation, and how not to step into the role of therapist when you’re not a therapist.

I faced resistance at Goddard and outside of Goddard for one simple and difficult question: what is and what isn’t TLA? When defining an interdisciplinary and emerging field it gets confusing. A student who is working with poetry and studied poetry therapy and facilitates workshops for elders, her work could be poetry therapy, applied creative writing, or a form of narrative theory. TLA is like a big tent that overlaps all of this. I think of it simply as a clearing in the woods. People who resonate with it gather there and we draw from what everyone is bringing to that clearing.

What a lovely image. I feel like I just stepped into that clearing.
That’s where community comes in. So someone like Seema Reza is starting the TLA master’s program, and she’s already doing workshops with wounded warriors and is an accomplished writer. I’ve had folks in the program who’ve had long careers as teachers, nurses, psychologists, librarians. They’ve been working in their hearts and communities and writings on something related to TLA their whole lives. One writer in Minnesota in her late 60s is doing the TLA program after retirement. For so many people who resonate with TLA, it names what they have been moving toward their whole lives as a writer or storyteller working with others around social change. That individual practice dovetails with community practice. What are you doing to make and keep community and foster healthy communities? I’m such a big fan of therapy that I should be an honorary therapist. But for many of us that deep inner work with a guide, while essential, is just one part of it. The other is finding “your place in the family of things,” as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, your place in community.

Can you give an example from your own life?
I was an artist as a child. I drew constantly, I painted, I was totally into the visual arts. When I was 14 my parents had a long and horrendous divorce. On a dime I switched to writing. There’s an old Yiddish saying that you can survive anything if you can give it a story. I became a poet. One of my first books was on writing for teens, even though I went into teaching and write in other genres besides poetry. I started leading writing workshops in my community in Lawrence, Kansas. The people who came didn’t come to learn to be “writers”; they came to see what the writing could show them. TLA came as a result of my seeing the deep need for people to write their stories and have good witnesses.

When I first started developing it I had no idea that there were other emerging groups naming similar approaches, such as Healing Story Alliance, the National Association of Poetry Therapy, and Theatre of the Oppressed. The more I learned about TLA-type things, the more I came home to who I am and what I am supposed to do with my life. Many people involved with the TLA network are there for the same reason. We’re all about wanting to do something about the brokenness in the world and to connect with our communities.

It sounds like that notion of bearing witness is an essential part of it.
Yes. I had a teacher named Judith Rance-Rooney, a really young teacher who led this special writing program for students who were in agonizing home lives. We were reading Beowulf in sophomore year of high school and I didn’t understand any of it. She told me “I know you tried so I’m going to give you a D.” But then she asked us to write a sonnet. From there I would sit with her in the teacher’s lounge with my new poem every day. She was able to witness who I was and what I was saying even if it wasn’t written that well. I was born hard-wired to create. I could have gone into music or visual art, but writing was what I needed at the time.

I teach an online class through the Loft in Minnesota on the craft of poetry, and I find that where the writing leads us is often more important than the actual writing. Developing the craft of a piece of writing gets you to a spiritual or communal breakthrough you need but it’s often not presented in writing courses that way.

In a lot of MFA programs and writing conferences there’s a real setup for competition. I’ve been to writing conferences where everybody’s lining up with what they perceive as the best poet and vying for validation. There’s the sense that there’s just one pie and there’s so many of us; some people are just going to get bigger pieces. TLA’s answer to that is to bake more pies. In the literary world it’s a whole different story. It reinforces the sense that there’s only a little room for the places at the top and tens of thousands of people are vying for them and won’t get them. TLA’s focus on right livelihood steps outside of that lottery-ticket approach to who’s going to make it as a writer.

You’ve written in a lot of different genres. Why have you chosen to write about your life in poetry and fiction and nonfiction?
Creating can make us feel more alive. My novel The Divorce Girl is a semi-autobiographical story of someone making her way through her parents’ divorce by making art and making community. My main character is a photographer, not a writer, and also is much taller than me. I have five books of poetry and a memoir called The Sky Begins at Your Feet, about how community and a connection to the earth helped me heal during my bout with cancer. I would hand my doctor piles of journal entries, and he would put it in my medical file; that became the basis for this memoir. I just finished Home on the Range, what I’m calling a “memoirette,” about my four-year term as poet laureate and how with the crazy politics in Kansas at the time all these writers around the state made community.

What do you find when you return to poetry?
I have been immersed in poetry lately, a book of poems on the weather. I partnered with a storm chaser, a photographer named Stephen Locke, and our book of poems and photographs will be called Chasing Weather. With poetry it’s a slightly different approach. Some poems are not narrative; they’re more lyrical. To paraphrase William Stafford, everything has a song if pitched just right. Poetry is my spiritual practice—to pay attention, open up my perception, see what’s right in front of me. We live in a culture where it’s easy to ignore what’s in front of us. For example, the bird feeder outside my window right now is being mobbed by a flock of red-wing blackbirds. Poetry is a way of learning to observe, of using the best words I can to convey that to others.

The following poem by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and photo by Stephen Locke are excerpted from Chasing Weather. Thank you, Caryn.

Questions for Home

Did you imagine there was more than this?
More than the grass or the sky?
More than the quick touch of a six-year-old’s fingertips
on your sleeve? Did you believe it would add up
to a history of torrent and mathematics,
ultimate meanings, causes and effects intersecting
like constellations of the greatest minds
you never knew?

It’s just a gravel road in the country.
An edge of grassland washed out of its redness.
It’s just a bobcat you missed because you opened the door
a second too late. The breeze inside the breeze,
the dominant gait of weather, the green light in the distance.

Here, don’t be afraid. It’s not like you lost anything
but the craving for craving, and even that will return.
Where else would you rather be than right here
where the bluebird blurs past the cedars
and time sheds its old skin so its new one can form?

Photo by Stephen Locke

Photo by Stephen Locke

Writing, Healing, and Community Building with Veterans: An Interview with Seema Reza [A Repost from Best American Poetry]

I have been a guest author each day this week at the Best American Poetry blog. The following is a repost of an interview I posted there yesterday. My thanks to Stacey Harwood and David Lehman at the BAP blog for permission to repost, and to Seema Reza, for taking the time to talk about her important work with veterans.–Joy Jacobson, CHMP senior fellow, @joyjaco

Seema Reza, photo by Willie Young

Seema Reza, photo by Willie Young

Seema Reza is a poet who coordinates recreational arts activities at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where she works with veterans and active duty service members in the Washington, DC, area. I met Seema last fall at a conference of the Transformative Language Arts Network, a gathering of writers, musicians, health care professionals, and others using language for personal and social change. Seema, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, will turn 33 next week. She has two sons, ages 13 and seven, and holds a bachelor’s in fine arts from Goddard College, where she is set to begin the master’s program in Transformative Language Arts. I talked with her by phone this week about her work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. And please make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page for a poem by a combat veteran participating in the arts program, Joe Merritt.

You’re about to enter Goddard’s master’s program in Transformative Language Arts (TLA). Why as a poet did you decide to pursue that degree?
When I got my BFA, they were really kind to me at Goddard. They let me play with different forms of creative writing, essays and telling the stories of what I was experiencing. And then my father passed away, and I couldn’t bring myself to write complete sentences. He drowned while on vacation. It was very sudden, very far away. Our relationship was rocky. I was going through a divorce at the time, and hadn’t talked to my father in a while. It was a devastating loss. When you lose a parent, suddenly you feel a generation older, a little closer to that generation holding up the sky. It was a big identity shift. I decided at Goddard to learn the rules of poetry so I could reject them. I found in working with fixed-form poetry that the poems are not necessarily where I want to end, but I am able to discover things using fixed forms. I have to force myself to find the syllables and words and phrases, and I will go back to it often to try to figure out what I am trying to say.

So you were discovering as you wrote what you needed to say.
At Goddard I was exploring the relationship between form and content and how that connects with the primal brain. And to connect with an audience, to hit an emotional place, you have to go deep. With fixed form it’s harder to hide from the difficult stuff.

Could you give an example?
I had written this villanelle. I believe the refrain was, “Now we separate, divide, remove the groom, reclaim the bride.” I thought it would be a poem about the fierceness of reclaiming myself. But you’re reusing these lines, and the meaning is changing. You have to keep addressing it to find words that rhyme. And then you say “Oh, shit, that is not the poem I thought I was going to write.” The final poem was not something I loved, but I had to confront my mixed feelings, take some responsibility for my part.

Do you see a division between creating a work of art and the “transformative” aspects of writing? Why get a master’s degree in TLA?
I have mixed feelings about how expensive higher education is and how it changes the playing field. It changes the bar to things other than accomplishment, skill, and grit. This program in particular is based on the idea of building community and using the arts to do that. It’s a simple concept but it’s overlooked. Art therapy is a field that has its own beauty and importance in the continuum of care. But ultimately, the benefit of finding your voice and having your words validated by your peers or by a larger community is something you can’t do alone. You might want to say it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, but that is not how humans are built. You have to have this opportunity to put yourself out there and see that no one runs away, to gather people together who say, Yes, I hear your story, I appreciate your truth, and I am still here.

When I attended the TLA conference last year I came away thinking about “radical acceptance” and how life changing that can be.
Radical acceptance is such a beautiful phrase. It is life changing. It causes me to have less patience for some of the more surface interactions that we tend to fill our lives with. It’s hard to come back from one of those experiences and say let’s go to happy hour.

Is the TLA study important to your career?
It is, in the sense that I hope to find the methods and language to answer: How do we survive in this work? I spend my day listening to some really rough stories. That’s my job. The goal is to create more people who are doing this work, especially veterans. There are stories that veterans tell other veterans that in some cases they wouldn’t tell me. So how do we maintain our own creative practice? That is an important part of the TLA program. When I’m working with veterans there’s mutual growth. We are together, both of us growing. How do we support the facilitators of this work, particularly when they have traumas of their own? It’s the kind of thing we need people all over the world doing, and they have to have safe outlets for processing it. Artists and veterans are leading these community-building workshops, and I’m interested in seeing that people are staying sane.

How is writing central to that?
Writing is what I believe in most of all. I paint as well. But I am able to hide more with painting than writing. At least two of the people who are a part of the research project I hope to do at Goddard are primarily visual artists and they bring some narrative to it as well. When I was burying my father, it took a long time to bring his body from India to Bangladesh. I was there before he arrived. It was traumatic, to say the least, the most difficult time in my life. I kept trying to write it and only could when I went to a writing retreat in Utah. I thought, if I break here I’ll be safe. I wrote the story in a workshop with Steve Almond. I use those words I wrote to speak about what I felt and saw. I tell it to people not because I want to tell this traumatic story but because it is who I am. I have to tell people who I am and why I am the way I am. The barrier created by the experience crumbles.

Why aren’t there more people taking about using writing in this way?
I am in a field where I feel a lot of people are talking about it—narration from a therapeutic perspective. But I think also it’s scary to do this work on yourself and with others. It’s super scary to take all the pieces of you and put them on the table and say I’m going to confront this. It’s hard work. People don’t know how to start. People don’t know how to enter into their story. I come across it a lot in people who don’t identify as writers and their experience in high school English does not prepare them.

What do you do as an arts coordinator at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir?
The program has three major components. First, we have the in-treatment groups, which are part of two intensive, partial-hospitalization programs. They’re in treatment for psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and it’s required that they participate in their recreational afternoon time. They have to be there whether they like it or not—and they do not at first, but eventually they do. There are between eight and 16 people in the room. We read a piece of writing and respond to it. I give them really specific directives, almost like Mad Libs. I give them the phrases they’re going to use. Free writing can be terrifying, especially to people used to being given orders. We do some visual arts groups within these populations.

The second piece is the open session, held on the hospital campus and open to anyone. It’s not treatment-directed, so you come if you want to come. We use visual arts and writing. Yesterday we had people doing self-portraits, soapstone carving, knitting. Somebody was painting with acrylic, somebody in watercolors. It’s loud and fun and we’re all making things. Sometimes we’ll have patients from oncology or inpatients, sometimes hospital staff, family members. It’s a flattened hierarchy, all first names, laughing, drinking coffee. Many are graduates of the programs. The open group has less structure, and they’re learning how to stay safe with less and less structure.

The third piece is a weeklong workshop—art, writing, music, or a combination—and ends with a performance that’s open to the public.

Open to public—that’s nice.
It’s incredible. We collaborate with local artists or veteran artists and work through the week to create this exhibit or performance. It’s an individual effort but they’re working together to support each other and propel each other forward to make their own work of art. They’ll have a recorded track of music and the performance is an opportunity to really step out and do this thing, to say, This is who I am, on a stage.

You’re working with people with PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder. Do you guide them to open up to a particular trauma?
I keep it open. I am not a therapist. I don’t want them to open up more than they’re ready to share. Whatever your story is, I tell them, be specific; I want to hear your story. People have different things they need to work with. You might have deployed to combat but you have this childhood stuff and that’s the story you’ve kept hidden. We work with Combat Paper NJ and Warrior Writers—two nonprofits that are fantastic. They will be in the DC area 12 times this year. Because that’s a veteran-led initiative, the work tends to very much be about the military experience. Those two groups come together and do writing and paper making and then there is an exhibit and performance. This year has an open-mic component, which has been wildly successful.

What’s it like to work with veterans?
These folks are some of the most generous and responsible people in the world. We’re all born into the culture were born in to. But across the board they have chosen this military culture. It has its own language and dress code and history. It’s a community in a really beautiful way—where people choose a culture and are so committed to it.

Speaking of culture, I found a short piece online you wrote about your relationship with your mother, who was born in Bangladesh. I laughed out loud when I read that she “did not enroll me in music and art lessons to uncover my potential. She didn’t tell me to never give up—giving up is one of her key strategies for coping with life.”
My mother just doesn’t get ambition. You know when you have a friend who’s in a bad relationship and you think you can’t listen to it anymore? That’s how my mother is about me. “Dude, if you were just a librarian and you’ d stayed in that marriage you’d be all right. Why do you have to write too? Just stop. Just do one thing.” We have our moments, as every mother and daughter do. But her love for me is still boundless. It’s not fierce. She’ll never apologize for having done something wrong when I was a kid. She’s not protective, but she’s kind to me. As you get older you value people who are kind to you.

You sound older than someone who’s 32.
Well, I became a mom when I was 19. But honestly I think it’s because of writing. I navigate the world really consciously, since my writing process has become such a central piece of my survival. I think a lot about why I feel the way I feel. The poet Cynthia Oka said a poem or a piece of writing isn’t done until it’s transformed you and your perspective. As a writer I’m always waiting for something to become clearer.

I’ve become more aware lately of how writing can transform a memory. Sometimes I even intend it to change a memory.
One of my staples is talking about your past self, even who you were yesterday. So much of what we suffer from is not forgiving ourselves, and it eats us up in the present. That person who did that didn’t know what you know now. We do a lot of rewriting. I use Jeanann Verlee’s video “Unsolicited Advice for Girls with Crooked Teeth and Pink Hair,” her directions for how to survive. “When your mother hits you do not strike back,” she says. We’ll play that piece and I’ll say, Tell that person you were at the time what to do. It’s all about writing letters to yourself.

Do you teach poetic forms with these groups?
Not as much with the groups that are treatment directed, but with my graduate groups, absolutely. We’ll go to the villanelle and we’ll take it toward meter and get a little more technical, engage the mathematical side of the brain. My senior thesis was an autoethnography: how I grew, where I was willing to go in certain pieces of my writing, how it affected the aesthetic value of the piece. When you’re dishonest in your writing it shows. That was one of my key discoveries. There is a formulaic short prose essay thing, and it’s cute, but its not always what you need when you’re really looking for the truth. It’s important to understand musicality and repetition and what it does for your work—what it does for your audience as well as you.

Louise DeSalvo says that in order for a piece of writing to be “healing,” having an audience is not optional.
It is not optional. The open mics are incredible. After they do that the next stage is to go to a local poetry venue and read. There, you might have antiwar poems being read right after a combat veteran reads about his or her experience. We don’t create enough space for gray. But it’s really important to make room for that.

The following poem is by Joe Merritt, a combat veteran who deployed to Afghanistan and participated in one of Seema Reza’s writing groups.


When your Egyptian cotton sheets
hold the comfort of rusted metal teeth
you find yourself contorting to sleep,
squeezing your bones into the irony
of an empty love seat.

The bird lands, kicking up a storm of sand
that settles in the deepest parts of you,
leaves an uneven deckled edge in your mind.
Nothing will ever fit perfectly with it again.

They have been gone for some years,
these dog-eared pages are their ghosts
the worn out shoes you won’t let go of.

Watch them, yes you.
Watch them loaded onto the bird
Watch them.

A mind reloading images like your
fully automatic
crew-served weapon.

Those bunk beds are
what became the smashed clock
of where you imagined your twenties
its gears and springs
lay across cluttered floors.
Childhood toys are no longer memories.
They are the priorities that lead to
a sink full of dishes, a mind full of trains
a bedside coffee pot gives you an extra five minutes

before waking them
wake from it
skin like a wet bar of soap.
Roll over and see the only one there
staring back from a dirty vanity mirror.

The dresser that held the linen is empty.
Lay in the metal teeth.

Pray to the gods of warrior fathers.


Nurses and Patients and Plagiarism: The Consequences Aren’t Merely Academic

Although I’m not a nurse, for 16 years I have been editing the professional writings of nurses. Also, for the past several years I have been teaching writing to nursing students and guiding writing workshops for nurses. And I have been confounded by a problem that seems only to be getting worse, perhaps because we’re getting better at detecting it: plagiarism.

Copy Culture, Will Lion

Copy Culture, Will Lion, Flickr

I have edited the “work” of nearly every type of nurse plagiarist. There’s the patchwork quilter, who copies-and-pastes text from a variety of cited and uncited sources. There’s the self-plagiarist, who regurgitates his own previously published materials, regardless of whether he owns copyright. There’s the poor paraphraser, who lifts others’ words and then rearranges and changes a few of them, telling herself that’s good enough. And there’s the wholesale thief, who submits entire sections of another’s work as her own. (That last one is rare, but I have seen it.)

The problem seems pervasive and intractable in both academia and biomedical publishing. And as frustrated as I have been over the years, there’s a question I haven’t heard asked often enough: is there a link between academic dishonesty in nursing and unethical nursing practice? Two recent nurse-authored literature reviews show that there may well be.

Joyce A. Johnson explores the question in the September–October 2013 issue of the Journal for Nurses in Professional Development (subscription required). Many researchers have shown associations, she writes, like one study that found “individuals who cheat to get good grades are more likely to follow unethical paths in their careers.” And although she reported no studies conducted on nurses, Johnson says that based on these findings all nurses should be aware that cheating in nursing school may evolve in the clinical setting into “falsification of records including charting, stealing drugs, not doing the work required, and jeopardizing the patient.”

Rebekah D. LaDuke reports the findings of her more exhaustive literature review in the November–December 2013 issue of the Journal of Professional Nursing (abstract here). LaDuke tackles the ethics issue head-on. If a nurse plagiarizes or otherwise acts unethically in academia, she asks, how can he or she be expected to “learn to think with a moral compass” in the clinical arena? Many of the studies showing an association between academic and professional dishonesty were conducted in business and engineering students, but LaDuke writes of one study from the 1980s that found that nursing students who were dishonest in the classroom also reported “stealing patients’ medications, lying on patients’ charts, and coming to clinical under the influence of a mind-altering substance.”

These reviews emphasize what I’ve long felt: that we can’t afford to dismiss nurses’ plagiarism as inconsequential, even if it is very often unintentional. I believe most plagiarism is not done maliciously, a conclusion it took me a long time to reach. I began to see it from the writer’s point of view when one of my students, who got caught copying for an assignment from a rather badly written blog, explained herself with a mixture of embarrassment and relief: “Oh, it’s my grammar.” Many nursing students pursuing advanced degrees have been out of academia for a long time; some have the added challenges of not being native English speakers. “Publish or perish” places an enormous pressure on academic nurses. And students, clinicians, and faculty alike are crazy-busy. They work full time, have families, go to classes, chair committees, all the while trying to write papers.

Both literature reviews looked at these and other reasons for cheating. “Everyone does it” is on Johnson’s list of reasons, and I hate to think it’s true.

Yet even as we seek to understand the causes we cannot be apologists for plagiarism.

Just a few weeks ago Gallup reported the results of its annual honesty and ethics in the professions poll, and as usual nurses top the list: 82% of respondents rated nurses high or very high on ethical standards, 12 percentage points above the next two on the list, pharmacists and grade-school teachers.

I encourage all nursing faculty and all editors of nursing publications to make sure the public’s trust in nurses is merited by requiring the use of plagiarism-detection software. To have a hand in guiding a nurse in finding her subject and writing originally about her life and work is not more time consuming than dealing with plagiarism. And it could have real-world consequences for nurses. For their patients, too.


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